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University explores life and times of Rosa Parks with new exhibit

Rosa Parks’ niece, artist dismantle Parks’ Detroit home to transport from Berlin to Providence

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Artist Ryan Mendoza displayed Rosa Parks’ former house in his backyard in Berlin after rebuilding it. The structure will now be featured as “Unfinished Business: The Rosa Parks Exhibition” in the WaterFire Arts Center.

History froze Rosa Parks in the moment she refused to get up from her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, according to Anthony Bogues, professor of humanities and critical theory, and Jeanne Theoharis, author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” and professor at Brooklyn College. Despite Parks’ extensive involvement in the civil rights movement, her fame centers almost entirely on the bus boycott.

Through the University’s upcoming installation titled “Unfinished Business: The Rosa Parks Exhibition,” the University and its Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice will encapsulate Parks’ “bigger, broader political life” and not just the infamous bus seat refusal — a feat yet to be attempted by any museum or space, Theoharis said. Open to the public from April through June 2018 in the WaterFire Arts Center, the exhibition will center around a house Parks lived in briefly when she moved to Detroit. The house was recently brought to Providence with support from the University.

“Rosa Parks was an activist and an advocate for racial justice and social equality long before she refused to get up from the seat and long after,” Bogues said. “The entire arc of her life is around questions of racial justice and equality in the U.S.”

Parks’ brother Sylvester McCauley owned the three-bedroom house, and Parks stayed in it intermittently after fleeing from Alabama for Detroit in 1957, according to his daughter Rhea McCauley.

The house was on Detroit’s demolition list until Rhea McCauley bought it for $500 in 2008 and then passed it along to artist Ryan Mendoza to restore it in 2016. Mendoza moved it in pieces to his home in Berlin, where he rebuilt it almost entirely on his own and with his own money, Mendoza said. Mendoza and McCauley together decided to move the house to Providence in appreciation of the University’s CSSJ, one of few programs in the country that address a university’s history of slavery, McCauley said.

The exhibition will help the University continue to reckon with a past strewn with injustice and slavery, said President Christina Paxson P’19.

“You don’t reckon with your past once and wipe your hands and say you’re done with that,” Paxson said. “You have to continue to think about the issues and engage.”

The exhibit will dive into Parks’ life in Detroit, which tends to be glossed over in comparison to her work in Montgomery, Theoharis said. When she moved north, Parks continued to experience segregation and inequality, struggling to find housing and work in Detroit, McCauley said.

“Auntie Rosa came (to Detroit) homeless, no money,” McCauley said. “Nobody wanted Auntie Rosa. People weren’t running around trying to hire my aunt.”

The house asks its viewers to grapple with the narrative of the “northern promised land,” Theoharis said. “It sort of asks us to see (Parks) outside of the South, it asks us to see northern segregation and northern inequality,” she added. Bogues, Mendoza and McCauley all see the house becoming a hub for conversations about the racial issues of today for Brown students as well as Providence locals.

In addition to its historical focus, the project looks toward the future, Bogues said. Its title, “Unfinished Business,” points to the continued need for racial progress, he added. The exhibit will end by highlighting present-day activism, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, Theoharis said.

“All of these movements today are taking on many of the things (Parks) and her comrades and friends worked on for decades,” Theoharis said.

Though many are in support of the University’s effort to spotlight the Detroit home, Steven Cohen, attorney at the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, is less sure of the house’s authenticity.

“The truth is, she didn’t stay there,” he said. “It’s a house which Rosa Parks’ brother and his family used to live in. It’s no more Rosa Parks’ house than it is my house.”

Parks’ “actual house” is still standing at its original location, 9336 Wildemere St. in Detroit, Cohen wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. “Mrs. Parks and her Institute kept the house in good repair all these years, something the brother’s family apparently didn’t manage to do,” he wrote. 

Theoharis is also unsure about the time period of her stay in the Detroit house, saying that Parks, her husband and mother “may have stayed there off and on, but they didn’t stay there for any extended period of time.”

However, Theoharis and Paxson, among others, believe the house is of great value and worthy of display.

“Stepping back, it’s not clear how it would be different if she had lived there for 50 years versus if she stayed there occasionally,” said Steven Lubar, professor of American studies. “It makes it something that connects … back to that moment, that hero.”

The Nash Family Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation all contributed to the project, which is being funded almost entirely by grants, Paxson said.